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What led to the trashing of Christmas Island

  • 26 November 2015

Public interest in the death and disturbance on Christmas Island has been overtaken by the Paris massacres. But questions remain, posed by the responses by New Zealand and Australian government ministers to the unrest.

Peter Dunne, the New Zealand Internal Affairs Minister, compared the Christmas Island regime to Guantanamo Bay. Peter Dutton, the Australian Minister for Immigration, emphasised the $10 million damage to property caused by violent detainees.

Both responses were partial. At a deeper level the riot was the predictable outcome of a brutal government policy.

The troubles were occasioned by the death of Fazal Chagani, a gentle Kurdish man from Iran who displayed signs of mental illness when he was held in detention centres in Melbourne. Despite that, he was transferred to Christmas Island, as have been many other asylum seekers and people who face deportation from Australia on character grounds.

The Immigration Department defends the removal of people to Christmas Island as a means to free space in mainland centres. It is simply about inventory management. But people detained suspect and fear it as a punitive measure designed to crush their spirits and their resistance to deportation.

Fazal's health deteriorated further on Christmas Island, and he died in circumstances that we may assume will never be fully disclosed.

His death was only the spark that ignited the volatile atmosphere of the Christmas Island Centre. Anger and anxiety breed in detention centres. Not all the people detained are affected: some who have overstayed their visas, return more or less happily to their own nations after a short period.

But many are detained for a long time following their appeal to stay in Australia. They are under intense emotional pressure. Those who have sought protection in Australia from persecution are terrified of being returned to their own nations. Many suffer from mental illness of different degrees of severity. The origins may lie in the experiences that led them to flee, but their illness is intensified by their detention.

They know that they are detained without having committed any crime. This naturally leads to resentment, especially when they share the company of others who were punished for criminal offences. They feel themselves unfairly stained with the same stigma.

A second group of people is detained after being sentenced to more than a year's imprisonment. Many, especially those who have families in Australia and have no connection with their nation of origin, appeal against the decision to deport them and